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Women Without Children Still Face a "Motherhood Penalty"

Simply being a woman of childbearing age can trigger discrimination.

Key points

  • Mothers often face employment disadvantages relative to women without children.
  • Women without children may still face motherhood bias if they are expected to have children in the future.
  • Organizations will benefit from making bias-free decisions.

There are very real challenges that working parents must navigate. Even after parental leave is over, quality child care can be hard to find and expensive, work travel is difficult to coordinate, school pickups and drop-offs cut the workday short, and the list goes on. But even if you manage to solve all these practical challenges so that you can dedicate the time and focus that your job requires, your employer might still assume that you are less dedicated, potentially affecting career opportunities.

We also know from decades of research that women are particularly likely to face this type of bias—often called "the motherhood penalty"—due to cultural gender roles that associate femininity with domestic and childrearing responsibilities. These challenges (both real and perceived) may contribute to a woman’s decision not to have children, or to delay children until their career is more established.

However, recent research suggests that women without children can still be affected by motherhood bias—managers might assume that women of a certain age will have children in the future, making them a higher perceived risk for investment and disadvantaging them on the job market.

Source: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
A risky hire?
Source: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

Maybe Baby?

“No self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age.” —Godfrey Bloom, European Parliament Member (BBC News, 2004).

Our research conducted with Professors Jamie Gloor and Eden King reveals that managers may still see women without children as a hiring risk if they are of childbearing age—a "maybe baby" bias affecting young women. Managers may believe that young women are risky investments given the anticipated costs of extended leave, workplace disruption, or turnover resulting from new motherhood. We hypothesized that this perceived risk can translate into a reluctance to offer longer-term contracts to young women.

To test these ideas, we surveyed 790 early career employees across 12 universities in Switzerland, examining how gender, parental status, and age interacted to predict the quality of their employment opportunities. Results revealed that women without children were more likely to be in precarious employment (shorter-term and temporary contracts) compared to both mothers and men without children. Moreover, this effect was strongest among women without children in their mid-to-late 30s.

To confirm the existence of the maybe-baby bias among hiring managers, we also conducted a "resume evaluation" study. We asked 376 experienced managers in the U.S. to evaluate one of six female job applicant profiles (i.e., resumes and social media profiles). The resumes were identical in all conditions and the social media content indicated that all applicants were childfree. However, the applicants varied in age (30s vs. 40s) and their social media posts expressed either no interest in having children, openness to children, or no information (but stated career as a top priority). Respondents were then asked to indicate the strength of their recommended job offer in terms of contract type, length, and benefits.

As predicted, the female applicant in her 30s who expressed an openness to children in the future was assigned the most precarious employment opportunities by managers. However, the good news is that when the younger applicant explicitly stated a strong commitment to her career (without revealing parental intentions), managers offered her a job opportunity that was on par with women who expressed no interest in children—the maybe-baby bias was attenuated.

Avoiding the "Maybe Baby" Bias

The hiring context may be particularly prone to elicit a "maybe baby" bias. First, the perceived risk is exacerbated by the "opt-out" myth that women are voluntarily leaving their careers in droves to pursue full-time motherhood; in reality, it's the lack of flexibility that drives out all parents.

Second, in many countries it is illegal to ask a job applicant about her parental status or intentions (rightly so); but hiring managers might still be inferring work/family priorities based on an applicant’s gender and age. Third, organizations without parental leave entitlements for both mothers and fathers are not only reinforcing gender role assumptions (which don’t go unnoticed), but also embedding real costs for employing women, which might be working against an organization’s equity goals.

Source: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
Winning an outstanding job offer.
Source: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

Fortunately, there are things that organizations can do to prevent "maybe baby" assumptions from producing biased hiring decisions. And although reducing bias is first and foremost the organization's responsibility, there are nonetheless some evidence-based suggestions that can assist women in mitigating the impact of gender-based assumptions.

Organizations should:

  • Support managers to use robust interview processes and make evidence-based selection decisions that avoid reliance on problematic heuristics or "feelings of fit" when evaluating applicants.
  • Budget for employee entitlements centrally so that managers do not feel like there is a heightened cost for investing in so-called "risky" hires.
  • Reduce the perceived cost of employing women by offering symmetrical parental benefits ("family leave" for mothers and fathers).
  • Commit to flexible work policies, which often benefit all employees, not just parents.

Female job applicants can:

  • Focus the conversation on the attributes that make you a great employee, avoiding explicit discussions of parental intent if possible—women can face negative consequences for both motherhood and non-motherhood.
  • When asked "Where do you see yourself in five years?” signal your organizational longevity by expressing commitment to the job and desire for advancement.
  • Be conscious of the signals sent in social media since most employers use this as an unofficial background check (this is good advice for all job seekers!).

Some might argue that excluding young women is rational because they (statistically speaking) are more likely to use costly employee benefits—but this type of thinking reduces people to a category and a dollar figure, while also revealing short-sighted thinking and possible underlying prejudice. (If this sounds like your current supervisor, perhaps it’s time to change your LinkedIn profile to “open for hiring.”) Making personnel decisions based on demographics is discrimination, but also just bad decision-making since demographics don’t reliably predict job effectiveness. In the end, organizations will benefit from making bias-free decisions.


Peterson Gloor, J. L., Okimoto, T. G., & King, E. B. (2022). “Maybe baby?” The employment risk of potential parenthood. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 52(8), 623-642.

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